Putting it bluntly: Compton, cannabis and ‘The Chronic’ — 25 years later
The quarter-century odyssey of Dr. Dre’s debut and its role in America’s complicated affair with marijuana
The Chronic is older than Karl-Anthony Towns. So when the 22-year-old center announced his support of former NBA commissioner David Stern’s call to remove medicinal marijuana from its banned substances list, it was a star player in America’s most popular and socially conscious sport calling for legalization. An admitted nonsmoker, Towns’ perception of cannabis includes its benefits outweighing its historical and modern-day bad reputation. Dr. Dre’s debut album, celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, played and continues to play a critical role in both the social mainstreaming of and resistance to the plant that made Colorado $1 billion in eight months in 2017.
“You don’t have to actually make it ‘Mary J[ane]’ [or] ‘Half Baked.’ You don’t have to do it like that, but you could use the [chemical] properties in it to make a lot of people better. That’s something that Adam Silver has to do,” the former Rookie of the Year told ESPN. “That’s out of my control, but maybe legalizing marijuana. Not fully legal, where people are chimneys, but using [marijuana] as a beneficial factor [for] athletes, as a person living daily.”
Towns didn’t go as far as putting his knee on the NBA’s neck. But he was steadfast in his commitment to destigmatize a plant long embedded in the fiber of American culture — both positively and negatively. Hip-hop, in particular, has its own complex and appreciative relationship with weed. And that story is impossible to tell without examining the role of Dr. Dre’s marijuana manifesto.
Dr. Dre was in the driver’s seat of a career crossroads by the fall of 1992. Rap’s most sought-after beatsmith couldn’t escape the title of “woman beater” stemming from his 1991 assault of journalist Dee Barnes (he apologized in 2017’s mammoth doc, The Defiant Ones). N.W.A. had disbanded. Dr. Dre’s new music came in the form of his newly minted Death Row Records, which he formed alongside football player turned bodyguard turned executive Marion “Suge” Knight. The Chronic, Death Row’s first project, was an instant success. The 16-song album was a sonic journey featuring samples from Parliament-Funkadelic, Donny Hathaway, Led Zeppelin and others.
The Chronic sounded different from anything on the scene and helped shift hip-hop’s ground zero out west. As a technical solo album from Dr. Dre, it was in reality an introduction of Death Row’s talent, such as Daz Dillinger and Kurupt, Warren G, The D.O.C. and Lady of Rage. By far the biggest beneficiary of The Chronic’s nationwide contact high, though, was Snoop Dogg. His appearance on 1992’s Deep Cover soundtrack, with the title song, had stoked interest.
But Snoop’s constant presence on The Chronic and his affinity for cannabis culture endeared him to millions. Numerous references to weed littered The Chronic’s intro and outro, “Let Me Ride” and “The $20 Sack Pyramid.” Visually there was Snoop’s white hat with its blurred marijuana leaf logo. “Chronic” became a permanent nickname for cannabis, in part because the mixture of Dr. Dre’s velvety instrumentals mixed with Snoop’s jazzlike cadence were a match made in gangsta rap heaven and weed fantasy.
Before Dr. Dre and Snoop helped take hip-hop’s marijuana appreciation worldwide, groups such as Cypress Hill had embraced the cause on its landmark 1991 self-titled debut. Marijuana thrived in genres such as reggae — hello, Bob Marley — and reached an artistic zenith at Woodstock.
“For a long time it was a bad word; saying ‘weed’ was like saying ‘heroin’ or something. The fun wasn’t there anymore,” Cypress Hill’s Sen Dog told Cuepoint last year. “We just had to put a cool twist back on it, like Cheech & Chong did in the ’70s, and get people to relax on the subject.” Now more socially accepted than at any point in post-President Richard Nixon America, marijuana’s crossover appeal is indisputable, found in movies, TV shows and documentaries. One environment in particular marijuana found a welcoming home is through music.
Yet, the stance Dr. Dre took on The Chronic was a stark 180 from the man who claimed on N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself” in 1988: I don’t smoke weed or sess / Cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage / And brain damage on the mic don’t manage. Now he laid the praise on the plant for helping him produce. “It’s sort of in this realm of pop culture being able to have some representatives who are the ambassadors of cool,” A.D. Carson, a professor of hip-hop at the University of Virginia, says of Dr. Dre and Snoop’s almost instantaneous cultural stranglehold. He says he believes The Chronic helped influence an entire generation’s perspective on weed and music.
The Chronic arrived at the end of a year of civil unrest in Los Angeles, and The Chronic can be viewed as a kind of escape. “To create something new, and an alternate place to exist, that’s kinda what they’re creating with the ethos of The Chronic,” said cultural historian Timothy Anne Burnside. “The backdrop being everything with the race riots and all these things that are happening, but they’re giving people an alternate space to exist at the same time.”
Dr. Dre and Snoop, she says, are an authentic representation of life in Los Angeles, a hotbed of creativity, despair and generational fury. “Marijuana is absolutely 100 percent front and center of that,” Burnside said. “[There are many conversations] that can be had about this record, but [marijuana] is definitely at the heart of it.”
The Chronic was, no pun intended, a massive hit, selling nearly 8 million copies since December 1992. As a result, Death Row Records became a cultural supernova, and Dr. Dre today is one of rap’s most decorated businessmen, with deep ties to Apple and his famed Beats By Dre headphones. A quarter-century later, Snoop is a household name, arguably rap’s most recognizable entity and the architect of perhaps rap’s most prodigious career transformation. His name is so synonymous with the herb, he sits on the pantheon of music’s most memorable marijuana mavens, such as Marley, Willie Nelson, Cheech & Chong and Cypress Hill.
The Chronic had political implications as well. Names such as Dr. Dre, Snoop and Cypress Hill weren’t the primary inspirations behind Proposition 215, the bill that made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana in November 1996. But their collective normalizing influence on society’s acceptance of weed is indisputable. And despite critics’ moves toward maintaining marijuana as a societal ill, hip-hop ignited a THC-laced conversation that has since grown increasingly public in recent years.
“If you look at the climate in 1992, no one would have thought weed was coming,” Burn TV’s Jason Santos said of hip-hop’s role in the legislation. “We’re talking about a huge shift in the paradigm in a short period of time coming out of the Nancy Reagan years, and coming out of all the anti-cannabis stuff.”
“If a bunch of people hadn’t been raped and murdered on The Chronic, it would have probably had a different effect further out on the culture. That’s the thing. You, unfortunately, had to loop marijuana in with the gangland violence,” said journalist and entrepreneur Marcus K. Dowling.
He and Burnside are frequent co-hosts of the monthly #ClassicAlbumSundays at Songbyrd, a Washington, D.C., coffeehouse/vinyl shop. On Dec. 3, the two hosted a joint listening session and panel discussion about the album’s legacy. An album can be many things at once, they surmised. The Chronic sits on this provocative mantel. But, Dowling says, “For as positive as marijuana is and the culture is, there are also very horrible stigmatized things in. Then you add in these are very young black men and women on this album engaging in horribly violent acts. Placed in the context of stereotyping of young black men and women, it does nothing positive for anything that it’s attached to.”
There’s another branch attached to The Chronic and its place in American pop culture. A quarter-century later, legal cannabis sales are projected to surpass $10 billion in 2017. The Chronic represents an American ornament, an important chapter in the lineage of marijuana’s history. The conversation around the plant has changed dramatically, mostly for the better, in post-Chronic life. But while the industry grows faster than the plants itself, discrimination is the elephant in the room.
“That’s a history of capitalism and the exploitation that comes along with it,” said Carson. “That’s generalizable to not just marijuana, but because of that dopeness as a metaphor, I think that it’s extremely important.”
Many men and women, particularly of color, are barred from the industry, stemming from the racially scarred history of marijuana prohibition. Retired NBA forward and legal marijuana advocate Al Harrington vented about this matter when he spoke to The Undefeated in 2016 on the topic. “It really sucks that kids have these nickel bags and ounces of weed on them and they’re felons. It don’t sit well with me,” he said. “If this is an industry I want to be in, I don’t feel right being in a position to make all kinda money off it knowing they’re still suffering.”
The Chronic played its role in forcing society to inhale truth and exhale reality about cannabis with credibility and cultural relevance that hasn’t been duplicated since. But The Chronic and its supporters understand that even 25 years later, freedom, frequently, ain’t free. A quarter-century removed, The Chronic, but really the culture that embraced it, is still chasing the perfect high.
More than ever, getting high is a societal norm, and the album, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg played a small but implicit role in that. It’s forever embedded in a history that at its core was barred off racial bias and fears. Meanwhile, many of the same men and women who have sung the album’s praises are still barred from an industry they participated in. It was illegal then. It’s America’s next big industry now — poetic dissonance rolled in the tightest joint.